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Aw, Shucks

Here are the ins and outs of opening an oyster.

By Elaine Dirico

It is often speculated who had the courage to eat the first oyster. My suspicion is that upon watching the sea otters or a sea bird relishing an oyster, it took little courage at all to follow suit. Otters are uniquely equipped for opening oysters, though. It takes a little equipment and a little experience for us lower life forms.

The single most important piece of equipment is the oyster knife. I have used (and broken) many kinds of knives, and there is good reason to buy the real thing. Not only is it easier on your tableware, it is much less likely to go through a valued piece of your own anatomy. Of course, faced with oysters and no oyster knife, improvisation is called for. The best second choice I have found is a wide-blade screwdriver. A third fallback is the trusty church key, but I find that more kitchens have oyster knives than church keys of late.

Gloves are optional. I like one for the left hand, which I use to hold the oyster, being right handed. A folded towel can work as well, and I usually use both. A large, shallow bowl on the work surface saves the oyster liquor.

To address the oyster, hold it hinge up, using the towel to grip. Insert your oyster knife into the hinge and twist with increasing pressure until the hinge just gives and the top shell loosens. Slip the knife along the inside of the flatter shell until you feel an obstruction. This is the adductor muscle. Cut it, careful to avoid slicing into the flesh of the oyster. Remove the top shell, and slip the knife under the oyster to detach it from the bottom. Remove any stray shell fragments.

There are some shortcuts for shucking oysters. Grilling is my favorite. Just lay the oysters on a hot grill for a few minutes with the cupped bottom shell down. Watch carefully, and remove them with tongs just as they open. Open and clean. The grill imparts some flavor and cooks the oyster a bit. It also has the advantage of fewer fragments of shell to discover. Another shortcut is to place the oysters in an ice chest or freezer for half an hour. Be careful not to leave them any longer, as frozen oysters are impossible to open and turn to mush when they thaw. But 20 to 30 minutes is enough to relax the adductor muscle, making the whole procedure easier.

Now you have the blank canvas for your masterpiece! Add spinach, cracker crumbs, garlic, Parmesan cheese and Tabasco, pass them under the broiler until they turn golden, and you have Oysters Rockefeller. Roll them in seasoned crumbs and brown them quickly, serve on a bun with shredded lettuce, tomato, onion and tartar sauce and you have a Po'Boy. Hide them in a pot of hot gumbo and let them poach, or stew them in cream for New Year's. However you finish them, there is nothing that evokes the sweetness and flavor of the Texas Coast better than our oysters.

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